Picking Berries While Colour-Blind

Even before I knew I was colour-blind I was aware that there were things I simply couldn’t see. I never knew the significance of the deficit, but I was all too aware of the privation associated with it.

When I was very young and living in the country, my friends and I would bicycle along the dirt roads on our way to the swimming hole—eight inches of water below the bridge—or the dump—with its magic of propane canisters blowing in the fires and the village of debris that others had thrown away. In late June, when the sun was nearly at its fiercest, and while black fly season was over but mosquito season in full force, my friends would suddenly exclaim and then leap from their bicycles for the sandy side of the road where, theoretically, wild strawberries could be found.

While they greedily plucked and smacked, I looked in vain for the berries. I wasn’t inclined to be innately suspicious, but if I were, I would have suspected a trick. As I have often proclaimed about swimming, that if I hadn’t seen it done before my eyes I’m not sure I would believe it was possible, was similar for the berries. I watched their hands and mouths redden with proof, and had to admit that they were finding something.

For my own part, I seemed to be perennially at the wrong patch, for wherever I looked, amongst the serrated green leaves that proclaimed the plant, I could never find the berries themselves. I would marvel at their ability to find berries where I saw nothing, but thought little about it except to wail at the unfairness of my luck.

I would dutifully squat on the sand and push leaves aside, hoping to find the richly red berries they were supposedly hiding. By times, after five minutes of systematic hunting, I would find a berry and its sweetness would be everything that I imagined, but I never managed a handful, and rarely more than a few. After twenty minutes or so my friends would announce the spot exhausted and we would clamber back on our bikes leaving behind us—in their eyes—a vanquished foe, although for me I only saw the same waving leaves beside the roadside, their berries just as hidden in my friend’s stomachs as they had been amongst the leaves.

Years later, when I first realized that I was colour-blind and that not every child read the colours of the crayons when they were colouring, I learned to ignore strawberry plants. I could find black berries easily enough, their vicious spikes clinging while I reached for the puffs of flavour around the hard seeds, and blue berries, the low bushes by times heavy with dusky blue gems. I could even find huckleberries, although I never tried to confirm that I’d been told the correct name, with its raspberry style berry on the long runners and notched leaves that covered the ground with leaves and an occasional sweet. Raspberries were also relatively easy to find, although I still think my childhood friends were better at locating them in the green shadow of their canopy.

By the time I was an adult I’d spent hours in the clearcuts and along the edge of fields finding the pendulous raspberry, hanging below the plant and it only took leaning over to find. Colour wasn’t a problem when the berries were large, could be glimpsed against the lighter green of the sun streaming through the leaves, and could even be felt, when it grew too dark to find them by sight.

Other produce of the woods, the red apples hidden in abandoned orchards, were highlighted by their greener cousins hanging on nearby branches. Pin cherries were easy enough to find, hanging high in the black cherry tree, and their ripeness could be confirmed by taste if their carnelian gleam were not clear enough. Bird cherries and choke cherries were dark red as well when ripe, but they grew in clumps. Hazelnets were easily distinguished by their two part assembly hanging below the cluster of bushes which spiked upward to the sun. Only strawberries eluded me, and that for many years.

Once when my nephew was visiting my cabin we went on a walk along the creek to the bridge a kilometre or so upstream. There, as we ascended the logging road that served the bridge, or had the bridge serve, he cried out for strawberries and went rooting along the bank. I followed him reluctantly, remembering the many vain searches which lay in my past, and as if to confirm the past defines the future, I found only a few where he found handfuls.

I was walking in the opposite direction along the same creek yesterday when I saw, while I looked for possible raspberries although it’s too early for them to be out, straw berry bushes along the gravel bar that came into being five years ago with the washed out beaver dam. I glanced only cursorily at the plants, but for the first time, as if to invalidate decades of experience, I could see the berries. Even while I stooped to eat, I noted how the plants were not competing with any other ground cover, not even grasses, so therefore grew nearly in the open. They are a sparse enough plant that I could look past the leaves and see, outlined against the bright gravel and sand, the berries themselves. As well, it is either a rich habitat for the berry plants, or the season is particularly apt, but whatever the reason I was soon biting off stems and spitting out seeds just as readily as my friends had done nearly half a century ago.

I crouched along the river bank, moving from patch to patch, marvelling that wild strawberries did exist after all, and that my youth hadn’t been a cruel trick, at least in terms of wild strawberries. Swatting away the mosquitoes who also couldn’t believe their luck, both of us treated to a rare feast along the bank of the creek, I ate berries until the patch was much diminished, if not exhausted. Finally, I straightened up, and waded across the creek to continue my trek, the berries behind me luminous with delayed gratification, my hands and mouth stained red and my teeth crunching on tiny seeds.

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The Collection of Water

There is something compelling, almost magical about the collection of rainwater. Like many human concerns it is a work that is tied to biological need and dates from so far back in antiquity that we have little information about our distant ancestors who strove to capture the freely given water from the sky. There is much talk about ice and the Shackleton expedition, and the many names of snow spoken by the various indigenous peoples in the north, but except for the desert people of the world, in the Gobi, Sahara, Kalahari and Atacama, water is merely taken for granted, the inevitable and disregarded socks under the Christmas tree, the sudden bloom of affection in a crowd.

It is raining now in the cabin, and as the drops streak over my skylights and down the roof, I am struck again by the feeling of accomplishment that merely righting a barrel under the drip can give a person. Many years ago, those who stood just beyond the cave entrance on the otherwise dry cliff, would have wished for, and no doubt quickly designed a system to gather and store the water, just as those in California today, bound by legislation, are forced to watch dumbly as the infrequent rain sluices over their land and they are unable to gather it into ponds or cisterns.

I have no such restrictions on my proclivities here in the forest, although it was a long time before I learned to bring the water to me rather than carry water in two litre soda bottles over my rough trail and up the hill. When I was first building the shack, as I called it, and sleeping in my car, I drank from the bottles that my friend had supplied in a nearby village. I was rushing through the building, having access to almost no materials and pushed by the increasingly cold winter to finish it quickly and get under cover. Finally, after three days of hard labour in the cold, I was sleeping in the shack in the woods, the fire keeping the snow outside at bay, and if my water froze in my bottle on the floor, it merely served to remind me of how others use a refrigerator to do the same. I was in the shack for a few weeks when I found a half barrel at a local illegal dump and brought it to the shack with an eye to turning it into a water barrel.

I had brought some eavestroughing, or rain gutter, from my friend’s house in Toronto. It had proven to be too beat up by ice storms and age to be of use to her and, like me, she never wants to see something go to waste that could be used. I cut it into ten foot lengths and piled it into my car, guessing that although I had no building on the land at the time I might have need of it in the future. I strung one of the pieces up behind the shack and, as if on cue, a heavy rain poured down around me that night while I fed moist wood to a reluctant fire.

The next morning, when I went behind the shack to check on the water barrel, I was taken aback by the wealth the full and crystal clear barrel represented. I no longer needed to carry water. I could supply one of my own needs without the outside world. The water was cold and clear and tasted delicious. That began various refinements to the system that continue to this day.

I tightened the eavestroughing so it was snug under the roof, and then channelled the water to the front of the building to where I had moved the barrel. In order to avoid the odd insect and leaf from landing in the water, as well as making sure mosquitoes would not lay their eggs in the still pool that was my drinking water, I covered the barrel with a screen.

I never carried water again. When I built the larger building that became my cabin, I formalized the water systems until now I have both hot—depending on the sun—and cold running water inside that feeds my stainless steel sink and faucet. Another hot and cold line goes to the shower, where I have two handles which control the amount of each temperature that feeds the shower head I installed in a shower in the corner of my attached greenhouse. Both of those systems are fed by a small extent of roof at the peak of my saltbox style cabin. The rainwater is gathered by the gutter, delivered to a winemaking barrel and when that is full, the overflow goes into my hot water tank. That half barrel is the same one from when I first started setting up the system. A sheet of glass covers the tank, and its black sides assist in garnering the heat from the sun. That is not sufficient to heat the entire tank, however, so I have a coil of black hose, some three centimetres in diameter, that delivers the water to the shower nozzle. By midday, the water can get so hot in the hose that it can scald my skin, but with the adhoc mixer tap, which takes water from a point above the coil of hose, a more equitable temperature can be achieved.

The overflow from the hot water tank, and here it rains often enough that I have overflow despite taking a shower nearly every day, dribbles onto the porch roof where it mixes with what rain the upper roof didn’t catch. This is gathered by another eavestroughing—which my friend in Toronto would recognize—and taken to another tank which hangs on the front of the porch just below the eavestroughing outlet. This tank is somewhat larger, and often does not have a use. It feeds both a long hose I hook to a tree so it doesn’t spill onto the ground, and a set of double sinks I have outside for washing hands, vegetables and dishes. The overflow for that tank is a long length of spliced together garden hose which leads to the pond I dug two summers ago and has yet to hold water for any length of time. I didn’t want to use any plastic or pool liner, and so I was reliant on the natural world to provide clay or rotting leaves to seal the bottom. In lieu of that, I have some of the water systems feeding the pond.

The north-facing roof is quite large, and the water from it is collected by a continuous piece eavestroughing I spliced from the lengths I had. The length is more than ten metres, and the expanse of roof provides a lot of water for the largest barrel I have. It is a full forty-five gallon drum which I cut the top off, and I mostly use it for an emergency fire barrel, as well as to refill the shower bag I keep as a backup—depending on temperature—to the main system. The overflow from it joins the hose going to the pond.

Perhaps the reason I am so interested in my water system right now is because I just added another piece in the water jigsaw that makes the whole cabin work as a unit. I have long wanted to do more that merely let the rain spill on the ground that comes from the long roof of the cabin that joins the greenhouse roof. My times I had a bucket on the ground to collect the water, and occasionally used it to water the garden, but more typically it merely grew algae. Just yesterday, I resolved to change that, so I pulled out all my various plumbing pieces scavenged from other parts, and plumbed a hole in the bottom of one of my forty litre pails. Then I put in an overflow hose and lifted the assembly to the small stand I had built to have it hang just under the eavestroughing. In the recent rain, it was gathering water, although it never managed to fill enough to spill through the overflow valve. The lower hose comes through greenhouse wall in order to provide a way I can water the plants I have in there without carrying water. In the future, I have even thought of a way to make this automatic. For now, the hose will suffice.

My water system is not particularly complex or even unusual, but when I watch the water spout into the barrel from a downpour which fills the eavestroughing, I am struck again by the magical nature of the enterprise. Many people around the world do not have safe drinking water, some suffer from the lack of any water, Chile and Israel are both in the forefront of desalination plants, while I need do more than hang out a bucket and I soon have far more than I need. I had friends when I was young, now forty years ago, who didn’t have running water inside, while I am living in a forest and my cabin is plumbed and has drainage. They didn’t have a bathroom and I have a shower with hot—at least when the sun shines in the summer—and cold running water.

Where once I was one with a billion others who carry water on their backs or shoulders to their house, now mine is delivered while I sit inside watching the rain sluice off the roof. It is a form of magic, a kind of wealth, and more basically, one of the ways in which I interact with the world around me and we find a place that we can meet.

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The Search

I was awake at around four in the morning but fought the urge to get up and slept a bit more until Santiago, who is the ranger who was in our room, got up at six. I thought he was beginning work, but actually he was only going to breakfast. He came back to the room around seven and then went back to sleep. I’m not sure what the purpose of that was.

Once we were up, Silvio and I went for breakfast and we were all on the way by eight. We first went to the train station and tried to get a ticket on the local train, which they never allow tourists to take, since it is ten Soles, or three dollars, versus eighty dollars that the tourists have to pay. Silvio tried to explaiun to them that we were not toursist but were rather in the employ of the police, but they didn’t really care. Finally, we were running late, and gave up and bought at Inca rail like the tourists.

The rangers were supposed to meet us along the trail, but actually they were killing time in the shops when they were supposed to be at work. That proved to be the way they would be the entire day, unprofessional and silly.

Silvio and I set off, setting a quick pace and then they rapidly outpaced us, some kind of macho urge kicking in that wouldn’t let them relax. We let them go ahead until we got to the spot where the guy had crossed the river, and then Silvio called Santiago to see if he wanted us to employ the drone there, but instead, he demanded that we go to kilometre one hundred and eighteen and fly the drone beside the bridge. On the basis of no evidence, Santiago had decided the body must be near the bridge. In the conversation, Silvio told me a little bit later, Santiago had referred to what we were doing as Operation Drone. It was  a moment before we got over laughing at the hubris and silliness, and Silvio confessed that he was reluctant to tell me, he was so embarrassed for his fellow countryman.

We walked for the two hours that it took for us to get to the bridge, just over eight kilometres, until we met with Santiago and the other rangers again. They claimed to be searching the river, but they obviously were not, since they were still ahead of us. When we saw them along the shore they claimed there were birds hanging around, and they suggested that they were birds that might be hanging around a body. I doubted it personally, for the calls were the same bird calls we’d been hearing all along. I think they were taking a break and prepared the story for our arrival.

When we finally arrived at the bridge, Silvio flew his drone. Sadly, Silvio and I were the only ones who seemed to be interested in finding the body. Santiago was mostly concerned with taking photos of himself with the drone, as if it was his accomplishment, although he showed a lot of interest while Silvio flew the river. During the flight, an older man came by with a machete and stood near so he could see what was going on. I talked to him a bit, about how he had worked in the park for over thirty years, and about how the trails the Incans had built wound around in the hills. Mostly he watched, standing off to one side so he could see what Silvio was doing with the drone. He seemed to be shy, as if someone were about to yell at him for being there.

Once one of the batteries was drained, we moved on toward the town. We stopped at another spot and Silvio flew both up and downstream. At one point, they thought they had something, but it proved to be trash that had likely washed down from the town. We had a bit of time left on one of the batteries, so we walked toward town. Silvio asked me, on the basis of Santiago’s excitement about the drone, if I wanted to stay another day, and I said if it were needed. Half an hour later, Silvio had chsnged his mind and wanted to catch our train. He told me later that the stupidity was getting to him, as well as what Santiago wanted the drone for. The ranger was mostly interested in self promotion, and that became evebn more apparent later when he asked Silvio to fly above the rocks where we had treid the drone in the rain the night before. There were local police below with dogs searching the bank, so it was not necessary, and it was more than obvius that santaigo merely wanted to show up the local Peruvian forces.

I said it was ridiculous to go below, since we could fly down, and Silvio told him there was little battery left. We also reminded him that we had a train to catch. Silvio set the drone up, tried to fly, but it wasn’t happy with the electrical wire and the railway tracks. Santiago was frustrated and wanted us to go down the bank, but Silvio told him we didn’t have time and we were running out of battery.

We left Santiago there, theoretically helping the searchers, while we went to town with Palle, a Neuquino that tagged along with us once he found out what we were doing. Silvio and he truned out to have friends in common in Zapala, where he was from, so they chatted on the way to town. Before long, as we walked fast in order to get to town to catch our train, we met up with the Argentian Consul and the forensics experts, Marcela. Silvio showed them the footage, and was trying to copy the files, when I left to get to the hotel and pack and shower before we left. Palle joined me, and strangely wanted to talk. Typically Argentians ignore me, and especially don’t want to talk in English, but I guess my terrible Spanish inspired him, for we had talked earlier. He said he wanted to practice, and learn English, so I spoke mostly English and kept it basic, and we managed a fun conversation into town and I was happy to have met him.

Silvio had to run part of the way, since the authorities had kept him late, although he still had time to shower and copy files before we left. They told him they didn’t have a computer. Who travels without a computer or a tablet? They were debating how to view the videos when Silvio left them dripping in the rain forest.

The entire experience was estranging and illogical. I found it difficult to imagine how more poorly planned the entire enterprise could have been. The authorties from the two different countries woulhnd;t work together. The police had offered a drive out along the river and Santiago refused, since it was too early. Santaigo rather arbitrarily decided where the body was, and searched in a piecemeal fashion, the local dam decided to release water when we were searching for the body, and there was hope on the behalf of the confused searchers that it would wash the body into the open.

The drone could have been used effectively if they allowed Silvio to search where the body was most likely to be, and then to sweep the entire stream, but rather Santiago wanted to grandstand and spent most of his time strutting around like a game cock.

We made it to the train a bit early, and talked to a retired Californian couple who were visting with their children. I talked about children with the mother and the father talked with Silvio about drones and motorhomes.

Once we were on the train, we talked with the New York public defenders sitting across from us, and we traded traveling stories. The man’s version of India was similar to what I’ve heard from others, a difficult country to travel in, but the most memorable and intersteing. Raul was waiting for us with his car, so we were soon on our way back to the truck in Cuzco. It was relief to get to the truck. Raul told Silvio about how he had slept in the car, since he had had to leave the city at five in the morning due to the general strike and had killed time all day, washing his car, for instance, local style, by parking it in the river and using the river water.

Silvio and I were both sore and exhausted, but we bought some bread and vegetables on the way through the city, and assured Raul we would discuss pricing the next morning about the taxi ride. We ate a bit and then crashed, glad to be back in the truck and assured that Jorge would be there the next morning at nine so we could sleep in.

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Looking for a Body in the River

This morning I woke up early, for some reason. I could have used more sleep but instead I was awake at six in the morning and trying to go back to sleep. It was nearly eight in the morning when Jorge came by feeling bad about our guide screwing up and Silvio having to move to a different, and much more expensive, hotel. He seemed genuinely sorry, but we told him it wasn’t a huge deal. We found our own way around the site and enjoyed it.

Silvio explained what we were going back to Machu Picchu for, and then he waited with Raul while we ate breakfast, such as it was, and packed the rest of our gear. On the drive I used Silvio’s Gopro to film the streetscape. There are a hundred pictures that you see as you fly past with a driver honking and pulling around slower vehicles and those are ones that you never get. I hope to be able to capture stills from the shaky camera held out a window.

We came to the train station much more quickly than I expected. I recognized it from the cobble stone street which it is illegal to tarmac because it is an Incan site. The walls are by times shaped rocks as well, although many of them are roughly placed rather than shaped. Silvio ran around dealing with finding the tickets while I waited near the gate with the packs, for they are heavy and not worth dragging around, and even though the time was late for the train, one of the train workers was informed about our mission, and he went ahead, claiming we were part of the rescue team. They held the train, and we were escorted onto the car.

Once we were on the train, we spent our time examining the video Silvio had downloaded about how to use the drone. It was pretty boring watching, but there were part of it that Silvio didn’t understand, so he got me to translate, or at least explain. Once the train arrived, I had more of the tech information about the drone in my head than I really wanted, but at least I can help him with the drone while he is flying around and amongst the trees and rocks.

We waited a little at the station for the Argentines to arrive, and then they—the Argentine consul from Lima, and a forest ranger from Patagonia, escorted us to the hotel. We checked in, it met Silvio’s standards, more or less, and we set our equipment to charge. The team met us downstairs a few minutes later, and we went with them, as well as a forensic psychologist, along the river. No one really knew where they were going, unfortunately, so we ended up following the railway track until we even went through a tunnel. The trains here clip very close to the electrical poles and the sidewalls of the tunnels, so we would be a bit freaked out if a train came. I found a way down before the next tunnel, since there was a fine road below. I have no idea why we were on the train track anyway, since we would be going along the river.

Once we were on the road, the going was much easier. I have no idea why they didn’t organize a drive out to the area where we needed to be, since it was four or five kilometres along the river. Once we saw where the guy had likely crossed the river, I could see where there might be a problem, especially if the water was high enough. The relatively shallow but fast meltwater river looked tricky, but just below a person who lost their footing would be swept into the large boulders and thrashing water. I went over the bank to get a closer look at the rocks, but when I was on my way back the ranger guy came after me and told me—very seriously—that if I was going to be going with their team I had to stay with them. I agreed with him, and we carried onward, him showing me the way up the hill as though we were climbing a mountain.

We went further along the railway tracks, and there were many tourists walking beside and in front of us. There are a few camping spots along the river, as well as special lodges which claim to be environmental, but that seemed to have no effect on the tourists who threw their water bottles away once they had finished with them. Once we found the area, there was a bit of a quilombo about how to get down the bank, although it was straightforward enough. We went to the sand bar, and then, as a light rain started, Silvio and I tried to configure the drone. It only managed to get into contact with a few satellites, so it was confused and would only go a few feet off the ground. We reset it, but it didn’t help. The rain became heavier and we waited under a tree, and then tried it again in a brief window between storms. It acted no differently, and didn’t pick up any satellites at all this time.

We walked back in the rain, and the scene was familiar. The Argentines never have any problem completely ignoring someone in their midst, so I walked along as they talked about something and nothing. I was wet, but the rainforest is beautiful, the tourists funny as they go by pretending no one is around them, and the rapids in the river interesting to watch. I saw a bird Christiano could have identified easily enough, a large red breasted bird with an iridescent blue cap on its head. It was a bit larger than a robin, and sat on the gravel bank at the edge of the stream.

Once we were back at the hotel, they let us go, promising that the third bed in our room would be taken by one of them, and the ranger drew the short straw. He came and him and Silvio talked while I wrote. I need to go over the past few days and fix them up, for I have been remiss with the blog lately. I’ve been writing, but we only have time late at night when I am exhausted. The altitude sickness seemed to have worn off, although I am taking it easy, depending on what you call walking ten kilometres in the rain along a railway track. I feel better though, and we have tomorrow to try to get the drone working so we can at least check the river with it.

Silvio is trying to get my tablet to work with his phone so he can control the drone from it while he is flying, but it is more frustrating than useful and I think that it might be a waste of time.

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Machu Picchu

I woke early, which is apparently a symptom of altitude sickness, and lay in bed for a half hour before I went down to eat breakfast. The free breakfast was huge, which made we wish I had more appetite, so I messaged Silvio but he came soon enough even if he didn’t get the message.

Once we had eaten as much as we thought we could safely eat, and Silvio took a pill for altitude sickness, we went to the town square to find that our guide was nowhere near ready. Instead, we sat around and waited. I was still feeling the effects of altitude sickness, but for most of the day I felt better. We caught a bus off the town square with a few other tourists, and before long we were following the fast glacial river and then climbing the switchbacks to the mountain above where we parked and the guide encouraged us to wait for someone who was likely our real guide.

We left him waiting and went in ourselves with an Italian couple and we walked up to the lookout where our guide was supposed to meet us. Machu Pichu is an amazing site. The rock work is not as incredible as it seems by photos, at least in the outlying area of the site, but the entire city is huge, and built on the top of a mountain. Huge boulders are incorporated into the building of the walls, and the crevices are painted with mud to join the stones. The walls that look like what people expect from Inca architecture are mostly those of the temples and other central special buildings. They are put together really well, and look like what we hear about the rockwork—so tightly placed that you could barely put a sheet of paper between them.

After we traipsed about on the lookout, and went for a detour to the Inca bridge, we had a choice between going much higher to the gate of the sun, or down into the city proper which had dozens of buildings largely intact. We went down to the city, and then, with hundreds of other tourists taking selfies, many many selfies, we went through the small houses and past the thick stone walls.

One of the most interesting encounters I had along the way was with Maclean, one of my students from the winter term. The look on his face was priceless, as he looked up and saw me coming around the corner. We chatted as he acclimatized to the idea, and discussed our travel plans, and then parted so they could continue the rest of their trip.

Silvio talked to several people along the way, for we had lost the Italians by this point, but perhaps the most interesting is the conversation he had with some Argentines who were standing beyond the cordon with some police. He went over to chat with them, and I kept moving, for he was getting tired and I wanted to see more before we left.

Once we met up again, Silvio told me how several Argentines, and some Israelis had crept into the park by climbing the mountain. They held them in the jail for a few days, and after that there were probably repercussions. One of the Argentines was not quite so lucky, for he has been missing since May 6. Apparently he was trying to sneak into the park as well and either slipped in the fast-moving river, or was bit by a snake or spider in the jungle. The Argentines that Silvio talked to were part of a team to try to find the—very likely—body, and when Silvio offered his drone, they slowly warmed to the idea although they had virtually ignored him at first. They can’t seem to locate a drone in either Argentina or Peru, so they called Silvio later as we were about to get on the train to come back to Cuzco, and then they met us at the station briefly so Silvio could tell them what the drone was capable of.

On the way back on the train Silvio sewed patches on his sweater, adding Peru to the many countries he had traveled to, and we talked about the drone possibilities. By the time we met Raul, the plan was beginning to solidify. We are getting up at eight tomorrow to have Raul pick us up, and we are returning to Machu Pichu to find the body. The argentine government is paying, since Silvio is doing a service for the country, and we will be there a couple of days to see if his drone work can find the body. The minister from the Argentine embassy is arriving tomorrow, and the search team passed on his contact information and Silvio called him from the car.

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Going to Machu Picchu

We left early, and in the rain, when we went to Ollantaytambo. We had our own driver, Raul, who didn’t speak English, so that gave him licence to ignore me when I spoke Spanish. We were able to stop and take photos on the way, so we got him to stop at some of the miradors. The miradors were crowded with people trying to sell local goods. We talked to some of them about a manta, or aguyo, which is a wrap the local women use to carry their babies or other loads. Most of the wraps they had were overpriced and fake, so we continued to the village for textiles. There they had an even more effective market for tourists, which was silly. The people were in their costumes but the place wasn’t meant for us.

When we arrived at the train station there was a huge crowd of tourists, which the locals call rooster face, cara de gallo, because gringos have long necks and tall heads for the local people. Some of the locals are very short, one and a half metres, so we look strange to them. Silvio and I walked the street a bit and then crowded on the smallest platform I have ever seen for a train with all the other gringos. We waited in a café and Silvio instantly found someone to talk to. He found two Indians living in Washington and we spent some time talking about the Trump quilombo that is the US now. Once on the train, we were seated across from two more Americans. One was Vanessa from Bolovia originally, and her boyfriend. Silvio mainly talked to the Mexicans across from him since he was frustrated by what he thought of as Vanessa’s snobbishness, based, as far as I could tell, in the way she spoke Spanish.

I talked to them, and endured the boyfriend telling me about some self-help classes that he is involved with. He told me about getting his Phd, but when I probed the question we discovered that the self-help classes tend to refer to their level of training in such terms.

Once we arrived in Agua Caliente, we ran into a problem. We looked at the room, and Silvio was instantly dissatisfied. He had specified with Jorge that he needed a heater in the room, and ours had none. He called Jorge, and by the time I was done my shower, he had organized Marco to take us to another guesthouse. There they had a heater, but Silvio was still not satisfied, so while I waited, he went to a rich hotel and signed in. We spent the night in the rich place, which had two heaters, and Silvio was more than happy with that. Unfortunately it was too late by that time to do much more than eat and crash.

We needed to be up and in the town square by eight-fifteen, and we wanted to take advantage of the free breakfast.

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Altitude Sickness

Silvio told me if I slept with my head downhill I would wake up with a headache. I used the pillow to make up the difference in the slope, and I think the headache I woke up with has more to do with altitude. We slept at four thousand metres and then drove even higher, finally peaking out at four thousand and six hundred metres. Even now, that we are in Puno, we are at thirty-eight hundred metres. My headache persists, but I am taking it easy and not walking too much or too fast.

Most of today, Silvio drove the switchbacks and gained or lost altitude. We stopped at a hot spring in a cave which was beside the road because Silvio wanted to try out his drone. I walked along the edge of the cave taking pictures, some of the hot spring geyser, some of birds which lived along the cave edge, and then, as I was taking a picture of a rabbit, I watched it jump across and road and realized it wasn’t a rabbit at all. It was something more similar to a guinea pig or some other rodent that a Canadian might have as a pet such as a chinchilla. I got some great photos of it as I followed the cave openings from above until I realized I had gone far enough and returned to the truck to sit around. Silvio was just untangling the drone software when I returned, so I relaxed while he chatted with a family of locals from Puno who work in tourism. They took pictures with him and when he brought them back to the truck, they took photos of me too.

They were super nice, although we had no language in common. That was the similar situation for me with the old ladies Silvio parked beside in a small pueblo near Puno. They were super sweet, and offered him a coke—not to be confused with coca leaves—and he bought some alpaca hats from them for five dollars each. They were excited to meet me, and encouraged me to eat coca leaves with Silvio to help with my altitude sickness, but that is not really me. I’m not very interested in drugs, natural or other.

Silvio bought a bag of coca leaves from them, and he is making a tea which he hopes will get him beyond the altitude sickness. We parked in a parking lot in Puno near the very touristy port. I went to check out the shops and especially see the boat made from reeds which resembles the ones the ancient Egyptians made—which was made famous by Thor Heyderal’s Ra Expedition. Once I did a quick stroll about the area, Silvio went and I worked on writing this.

Puno is a bit famous because it is where the Peruvian government decided to send their people once they emptied their prisons. We weren`t in town long enough to realize whether this had had a lasting effect on the culture. As it was, it seemed like a typical city which served a large area, huge markets, heavy loud traffic, many buses, and thousands of people in the streets.

Leaving town was a bit painful, since traffic was heavy, there are no street lights, and no one obeys any rule beyond me first. We finally got out of town, and then Silvio drove until nearly dark when I took over, much like last night. I drove until I was too tired. We should have pulled over long since, but instead we kept on to Cusco where we are now parked in a parking lot the tour guy Jorge Saul has the use of. Supposedly we are safe enough for the night, and tomorrow we will move to a better and more secure lot. The drunks who were partying here left and now I am cooking tofu and veggies and we are getting ready to crash.

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Hacking the Chilean and Peruvian Border

I have slowly learned that Silvio doesn’t eat breakfast most of the time. Since he doesn’t, he wants to leave immediately upon waking. This morning we followed that urgency and drove to the border nearly as soon as we were up and stirring. That meant we were there earlier, although when we saw how slow the line was moving at the Chilean exit border, we knew we had gained little from our alacrity.

We lined up with the others, produced paperwork for one office, and then went upstairs with a university student who has been tasked with asking tourists questions that are ostensibly meant to discover how to improve Chilean services for tourists but in actuality are more about finding out where the tourist dollars are going. She accompanied us upstairs to the cafeteria where a woman who sells food also sells the free border forms which declare what vehicle you arrive in. The forms that are free anywhere else in the country, are here 1000 pesos, or, as the woman from tourism told us, the charge can be arbitrary depending on who comes for a form. Once we had paid what was essentially a bribe, the tourism worker helped us fill out the forms and then we went to the large queue downstairs. The border officials are on strike, apparently, so that is why it can take up to four hours to pass through to Peru.

While we waited in line, Silvio chatted with a woman from Chile and a man from Paraguay, picking their brain for information about the road ahead. The problem with this technique is that he by times gets excellent information, but often is told pure balderdash as well. It enables him to talk to peple, which he likes, and by times yields good results. In this case, as Silvio went back to the truck, it worked out well. He found a border official who worked in the parking lot and chatted with him, and before long he came to me and told me to “play stupid” is anyone asks where he was. I figured that he would be getting me to go through the border alone, for it might be easier, but Silvio, like god, rarely explains what he is doing. Rather he expects you to play along and enjoy the result, although it may not be what you want.

In this case, Silvio returned after a few minutes, told me to go to the truck and he would come and we were getting through customs quickly. He told me to be casual. I said I was going to the bathroom and left, and behind me, as I walked to the truck, I heard Silvio explain I was going to the bathroom to the other people in line. Silvio was not far behind me, and soon we were going through the lengthy customs’ line. It turned out that Silvio had chatted with the border guy, the man had gotten our papers stamped, and we could cut ahead of the line.

The border in Peru was also a bit of an ordeal. We stamped into the country, then they examined the truck. I stood on the side and chatted with a border guard, my poor Spanish doing little to convey what I meant but easily identifying me as a innocent tourist. Silvio refused to remove our stuff from the truck on the grounds there was too much, and they went on to examine the vehicle. Before long they exited with our fruit, making me wish again that I had taken advantage of the time and eaten, especially the bananas. I am going to make sure that doesn’t happen on the way out of the country. And no more skipping breakfast to stand in the sun for hours at a border.

Once we crossed into Peru, we came to Tacna, the city closest to the border and Arica. Here we drove around trying to find a parking spot and finally came to rest beside the police station. Silvio gets nervous in cities, especially when the traffic is heavy and the streets tight, and he is terrible with relating directions. He wanted to go where the tourist info people who we’d talked to had suggested, but when I took us to that area, he wanted to go back to the main road and park by the police station instead. I might have been wrong about where we needed to park, however, for none of that was translated for me and I mostly guessed where we needed to be.

Our plan now is to go inland, through Monquegua and then further inland to Puno where Peru years ago had sent all their political prisoners. It promises to be somewhat interesting because of people living on the lake and using reed boats for transport, much like the Egyptians, but I remember Felipe saying to avoid the area.

We left Tacna finally, after Silvio got internet on his phone and talked—as far as I can tell—with everyone in the supermarket across from where we were parked. Once we left town, following the winding streets and the poorly realized maps of the GPS, we drove high into the desert where a few bushes struggled to eke out a living. Soon the road wound up through the hills and into switchbacks above Monquegua. We went over three thousand metres in height over the hour or so that I drove a tortous set of switchbacks. We had a few hair-raising moments when people coming down the hill tried to pass the truck in front of them or came into my lane while they descended too fast on abrupt curves, but it was also a bit tricky when I passed a truck and had to rev high in second gear to get in front of the truck.

We are very high altitude now, at thirty-five hundred metres above sea level, and we are parked at the toll both. Silvio asked the cop who was checking traffic and he told us where to park so we could pull over. We are now parked beside the guard rail in the parking lane well behind a truck from Bolivia. We’re on an angle, so we have to sleep with our heads towards the front of the truck.

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Corpse Carrying Dog

We were asleep early enough, and up by eight-thirty. Supposedly Walter gets up at five, but he was sleepy looking when we finally stirred out of the truck. Silvio had a coffee with Walter, but I was more interested in seeing more ruins, so I went into another part of the village. I could see Silvio in the distance, and could hear him calling me to accompany him into the theatre, but I was more interested in places I hadn’t seen, like the communal kitchens and garage. I went through a few of those buildings, and then joined Silvio, only to have Walter come to meet us with his truck.

As Silvio said, “Does he walk nowhere?” Walter asked us if we wanted to see more of a tour, so we went with him around some of the same places we saw before. Once we had gone through most of the village, and stopped in the quincho of the big house of the owner, we toured the places where people break in to steal wood. Wood is at a premium in the desert, so people come to steal the Oregon pine left over in the buildings. Most of it is gone already. After, we went to the cemetery which was hit hard by flooding in the past few years. There Walter lifted the lid on a box which held the bones of a little girl, and encouraged us to look. We looked at the tiny backbone of the kid, and then Walter slapped the cover back on the box. We looked around the rest of the cemetery, which Walter told us is one only for children. I walked to the far end of the cemetery and took a few photos of crosses which had names, but for the most part I tried to discern what the crosses and the gates around them were made of. In one of the tiny mausoleums there were bones scattered around, which looked like small human bones.

The most macabre sight waited for us when we left. One of the dogs, the one we all liked the least, grabbed a portion of a ribcage of a child and was running up the road beside us to chew on it later. Walter stopped the jeep and then threw rocks at the dog in an effort to make it drop the bones. The dog merely went further away and then walter got back in the truck and drove away quickly so the dog would get tired of carrying the parts of a child and drop it. He informed us after a few minutes that the dog had given up so it could run better, but we all knew that Walter was not going back to pick up the portion of the body and return it to one of the graves.

I couldn’t help but think about the parents and how they felt when their child died, to not only to have the body treated with such disrespect that they had placed so gently in the ground. If my daughter were to die, and some dirty dog were running with her in its mouth, I certainly would be less than pleased.

We left Walter soon after. We refilled the water tank, and then left Walter to his empty village while we drove many hundreds of kilometres. I did most of the driving in the late afternoon into evening, although we stopped a few times to take photos of the abrupt and violent green of a river valley. We’d seen only a few trees, and most of those were planted and tended by humans, but soon more trees and bushes began to appear. At one such stop, at the bottom of the river valley, Silvio took the drone into the air and filmed the surrounding and I went exploring into the shrubbery along the bank. It is easy to forget how great green growing things smell when you are in the dry dust of the Altacama. The desert here has nothing, not a single green thing and no insects other than the odd fly which I am at a loss to explain how it eats.

As the sun dropped it tore aside the last of the clouds and unfortunately, as dark settled over the land we dropped into a huge valley. It was too dark to make much out, but I drove the winding roads for at least twenty kilometres into the valley bottom and perhaps ten kilometres coming back up to the plain after.

We are now in Arica where we found a gas station we are parked at. Silvio chatted with an older retired couple from Argentina and then brought them back to the truck, of course, where they gave us lots of advice about how to get to Cusco and Machu Pichu. We talked to them for about forty-five minutes and then went across the street for an empanada. I wanted to try the local food. I cut up some veggies to go with it, and then we ate until it was time to work on our respective projects.

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Ghost Town of the Altacama

We went to sleep fairly early, despite Silvio’s longstanding habit of watching television until he goes to sleep. We woke around nine, and were on the road shortly after washing up, Silvio driving until we pulled over for him to use the drone in the desert. We did that, dumped a load of waste water, and then I drove until we found a huge sculpture of a hand in the desert. It is apparently a common tourist site, and before long, a van full of four Aussies and Kiwis pulled up and unleashed their own drone. Silvio went to talk to them and brought the drone flyer back to discuss drone software and configuration. I talked to a couple about their trip and what the experience was like. Their camper van is a rental, so they were excited about Silvio’s truck. Mostly, however, Silvio and the drone guy chatted and the others merely wanted know how far it was to Bahia Inglesa.

I talked to a few truckers about what the hand meant and they said it represented the people of the desert. I asked them about the rest of the body. They laughed and then asked where we were going. I told them we were going north, although I was reluctant to bring up Peru. That has implications about how much money we have and contains too much information about where we will be on the road.

Silvio found out that he could program the drone from the traveler we met so he ran down one of the batteries trying it out. After we left the hand the highway widened, a new toll appeared where we had to pay full price, although the tarmac improved.

We had just stopped for fuel, and strangely got money from the gas station attendant who helped us, when we were climbing above the town and saw a ghost town. We turned around and drove up to the entrance and Silvio got out to ring the bell, which was done with a hammer. Finally an older man came and they chatted and I drove into the entrance. We parked beside the park office and the man’s house, if there was a distinction between them, and he drove us around the park. There is a route that he takes the tourists on, including a church a man made in a house when the church was burned by militars.

The town had originally been the company town of Salitrera Chacabuco. It was a mining town built by a British corporate which was meant to support the mining of nitrate. After the minerals ran out the town was used for housing political dissidents during the American Pinochet period in the early seventies. A number of people were killed here as well as tortured and some of the carvings into the dead trees in the square show that. The houses are row housing like you would find in a British mining town, and the entire village is surrounded by a wall. The houses are in ruins now, and the support buildings as well. Only the theatre is restored, although not likely to its former glory. It operates as a kind of museum with a few placards and posters as well as materials in cases.

Walter, who runs this place does a weeklong shift and then his friend comes. He is here to give tours, maintain the buildings for the park, and to make sure locals don’t come and destroy the place. Many of the houses are graffittied and the furnishings have been taken. As well, the park is used a crossroads for people smuggling cocaine out of Bolivia and into Argentina and Chile. The mules—who are people carrying backpacks of drugs across the desert for three days—wait outside his gate to transfer their load to the drug dealers. He has found drugs before lying in the desert but he just leaves them there. Otherwise he fears they would come by and kill him.

The other danger, if you worry about such things, are the ghosts which haunt the site. Apparently, two old man stroll about and then disappear. They seem to be as substantial as the living although the dogs do not seem to notice them. The other ghost is cuter. A young girl stroked the shoulder of Walter when he was sitting on a bench near the theatre. He told her she should go to sleep and she went away. She appears quite frequently, but when I went down to the square alone she didn’t appear. I stepped into the foyer of the theatre but it was dark inside and creepy so I didn’t go beyond a few metres into the yawning cavity.

I came back without sight of my ghost and Silvio later told me Walter asked whether he should shut off the lights while I was down there. I was thinking that when I was there. I thought I would try to scare them and then wait for them to arrive and freak them out some more. When they looked down toward the town centre this evening they could see ghosts pacing in front of the theatre. I saw nothing. Maybe they saw the trees moving in the wind. It is some distance away, so it was likely nothing, but their emotionalism demands a more vivid explanation. I ate my potato and ignored their assurances.

Silvio backed the truck into Walter’s compound and we are now working on our respective devices, him with his video and me with this attempt to record our adventures.

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